Fluffy, white puffs of snow flitted thick through the air, exploding into droplets of water on my windshield as I pushed north up the interstate to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The night was fast approaching, and as the miles ticked by, the sky above transformed from a smoky white to an impenetrable black. I was on my way to catch a one-of-a-kind concert — Bon Iver was celebrating the 10th anniversary of their debut album For Emma, Forever Ago in an arena packed with 17,000 very eager fans. All things considered, the atmosphere outside felt totally apropos. A good winter indeed.
The creation story behind For Emma is well-known and highly mythologized. It’s become indie rock’s version of Henry David Thoreau’s return-to-nature novel Walden. Justin Vernon, a 25-year old fledgling singer-songwriter living in Raleigh, North Carolina, splits with his band, breaks up with his girlfriend, loads his recording equipment into the trunk of his career, and retreats in solitude to his parent’s remote hunting cabin in Medford, Wisconsin. Between November 2006 and February 2007, while still recuperating from a liver infection, Vernon hunted for his own food, drank beer, and wrote and recorded a suite of gorgeous new songs that became the first Bon Iver album.
“I had no proper idea of what I should be doing,” Vernon told Steven Hyden several years ago. “It was a great release, actually, to break up with my band and not have that support system anymore. I was alone, I had no rules, I had no band, I had no sound I sounded like, I had no one to answer to. I just felt a little freer.”
Freedom and pain. Those are the twin feelings that course through the haunted, gut-wrenching music that Vernon assembled. To try and define meaning merely from what he’s singing is to miss the point. It’s a record that defies literal interpretation. It’s the emotion packed in his feather-y, self-harmonized, sometimes-autotuned falsetto where the heart of the record lies. After all, as Vernon told The New Yorker, “Emma isn’t a person,” Vernon told the audience. “Emma is a place that you get stuck in. Emma’s a pain that you can’t erase.”
Bon Iver shared the songs on For Emma, Forever Ago himself on Myspace in June 2007. The underground community passed the music around, and it soon gathered notice from critical outlets like Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan. A battle among record labels ensued to sign Vernon, with Jagjaguwar emerging victorious. The album got a wider release on February 18, 2008. Pretty soon, it became hard to walk into a Starbucks anywhere in America without hearing the album’s standout single “Skinny Love.” Bon Iver had arrived.